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A People Who Once Were

By Keith R. Green

March/April 2007

"I am afraid that there will come a time when history books refer to African Americans as a race of people who once were."

-- Saundra Johnson, community educator and long-time HIV/AIDS advocate

Keith R. Green
Photo © Russell McGonagle
Early on the last morning of 2006, two masked gunmen entered the basement of a two-flat building on Chicago's South Side. The first floor residents of the building were hosting a party that was just about to end. They were known to be gay. They were also known to frequently host rowdy late night parties that lingered into the wee hours of the morning. On more than one occasion, according to some reports, the police have been called in to respond to a myriad of offences -- ranging from disturbing the peace to aggravated battery.

Local news reporters who followed the story interviewed a number of neighborhood residents. From their perspective, this was bound to happen. The people in the "gay" house had been warned that "this type of activity" was not acceptable in "this type of neighborhood." They had been told to move it and to take it back to the suburbs. They had not adhered to the warnings.

The gunmen said no words -- they simply sprayed into the crowd. The Chicago Police Department concluded that there was not enough evidence to investigate this tragedy as a hate crime. The gay community became outraged. Outraged at the way that they felt the investigation was being handled. Outraged at the Department's insensitivity as it relates to constant threats of homophobia, particularly in this neighborhood. Outraged at the blatantly homophobic remarks made by community members. Outraged that black "leaders" such as Jesse Jackson or James Meeks did not publicly speak out about the shooting, one way or the other. And outraged at each other for not knowing how to respond.

A community forum was hosted at a local gay-owned restaurant and, on the day that this country acknowledged the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a march for "peace and respect" was held through the streets of the affected neighborhood. Black and white, gay and straight, people from all over the city came out to show their support for the GLBT residents of this community -- who live their daily lives in a sea of intolerance.

While I have been both present at and fascinated with the community response, I have also been overwhelmed with the feeling that we are all somehow missing the bigger picture. From the very beginning, rumors began circulating that the circumstances around this event may not have been what they appeared to be. The degree of community homophobia was undeniable, as evidenced by the remarks made from the neighborhood thugs to the first news reporters on the scene. But the word on the street was that the shooting stemmed from a dispute that had occurred earlier in the night between partygoers and did not in any way meet the legal qualifications of a hate crime.

The bigger picture, then, looks like the acclimation of violence in black communities all over the world. We have become so familiar with these kinds of horrific events occurring within our communities and neighborhoods that unless buzz of "hate crime" surrounds them, we don't look up from our daily lives to pay it any attention. If we did, we would probably become overwhelmed. And maybe that's what needs to occur. Maybe we need to become so overwhelmed with all that is really happening in our community that we become forced to do something about it.

But there would just be too much to do now, wouldn't there? If we paid attention to the disproportionate number of us who are behind bars or infected with HIV. If we looked at how the crack cocaine epidemic has further burdened our urban ghettos and poverty-ridden slums. If we paid attention to the number of us who earn college degrees (or high school diplomas for that matter) compared to other races of people in this country. Or how our youth perform on standardized school exams in comparison to other children their age. If we really paid attention to any of the social ills that face Black people today, there would be just too much to do. And maybe that's why so many of us have resorted to doing nothing.

While I've argued Saundra Johnson up and down since I heard her utter those dismal words nearly two years ago, it's hard to deny the fact that her hypothesis may have some validity. The daily news provides all the supporting evidence that she needs.

Community forums and marches are a wonderful start, but I'm afraid that if we are to actualize a different outcome than predicted by Saundra, there is something else that we must do. We must effect change in the very fabric of our world. And the issues of our world are not just limited to GLBT issues or black issues or HIV issues. No. It's about universal human issues. Every human should feel safe where they live -- wherever they live. Every human should have access to a good education and life-saving medications. Every human should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Until we all do, none of these luxuries are guaranteed to any of us.

And that's cause for all of us to pay attention.

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